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ATHENS 2004

Marathon Leader Knocked Off Course

After a strange intrusion, Italian wins and Keflezighi ends U.S. drought with silver.

August 30, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Vanderlei de Lima was tiring. That much was clear.

The compact, 35-year-old Brazilian had slipped ahead of the Olympic marathon pack 63 minutes into Sunday's race, but his pursuers had sliced his 40-second lead to 25 as they pounded from Marathon toward Athens on roads still radiating heat. After an hour and 52 minutes, in the 22nd mile, Italy's Stefano Baldini and the United States' Meb Keflezighi were poised to pass the laboring Brazilian, with world-record holder Paul Tergat of Kenya not far behind.

De Lima never got the chance to discover if he could have held off the fresh-looking Baldini and the smooth-striding Keflezighi.

The course of his race -- and, perhaps, of the Athens Olympic marathon finish -- changed when a defrocked Irish priest with a history of trespassing at sports events and a hand-lettered sign alluding to the Bible affixed to his back darted onto the road and pushed the startled De Lima into spectators watching the final event of the Games.

The intruder, identified by police as 57-year-old Cornelius Horan, had run onto the track of a British Formula One Grand Prix race last year wearing a kilt and beret similar to those he wore Sunday. He also had caused a disturbance on the grounds of Wimbledon last year and tried to disrupt cricket and rugby matches.

Horan, whose sign bore the words, "The Grand Prix Priest. Israel Fulfillment of Prophecy Says The Bible. The Second Coming is Near," was subdued by several bystanders and a Hellenic National police officer who was escorting the runners on a bicycle. Horan was arrested and will appear in court in Athens today, police sources said, though it's unclear what the charges against him will be.

"I wasn't expecting that at all. I couldn't defend myself. He hurled himself at me right in the middle of the street," said De Lima, who was off the course for about eight seconds. He was passed by Baldini at the 2-hour mark and by Keflezighi at 2:01 but struggled to the finish line at Panathinaiko Stadium in third place, in 2:12:11. Baldini won in 2:10:55 and Keflezighi followed in 2:11:29, the first American man to win a marathon medal since Frank Shorter's silver finish in 1976.

"If that spectator didn't jump in front of me in the middle of the race, who knows what would have happened? Maybe I would have won," De Lima added. "It disturbed me a lot.

"From the moment that happened, things were totally different. ... Obviously, if you stop in the middle of the marathon you lag behind the next three or four kilometers. It's hard to get your rhythm back."

Horan had arrived in Greece at 3:40 a.m. Sunday on a British Airways flight from London, sources said. They also said Greek police were irate that they hadn't been alerted to his presence.

However, De Lima, who had finished seventh at Atlanta in 1996 and 27th at Sydney in 2000, did not level blame for the security lapse.

"I think it was really an isolated thing," he said through an interpreter. "I think the Olympic Games were going very well. Things were functioning exactly as they should. It could have happened anywhere. It just happened to be the marathon and happened to me.

"The public has to be able to watch the marathon race from close up. I wouldn't want to isolate the public from the marathon course because athletes would be losing the support they get."

The Brazilian Olympic delegation appealed the results of the race to international track authorities. The appeal was denied, but the International Olympic Committee will recognize De Lima's sportsmanship by awarding him the Pierre de Coubertin medal, named for the founder of the modern Olympics. De Lima also said he would welcome it if Brazilian officials push for a second gold medal for him. "I would be happy, because what happened obviously influenced me," he said.

Neither Baldini, a former waiter, nor Keflezighi, a native of Eritrea who emigrated to Italy and then to the U.S. in 1987, was aware of what happened to De Lima. Baldini, the bronze medalist at the last two world championships, said he saw "only people on the road. ... When that happened, I was running with a rhythm 20 seconds quicker and I would have caught up with him, anyway."

Keflezighi and Baldini worked together to overtake De Lima. Keflezighi, who speaks Italian, told Baldini, "Let's go get him."

And they did, with Baldini running the final five kilometers in 14:39. He waved to the crowd as he loped down the final straightaway, looking amazingly collected after his efforts on a day when the temperature stood at 80 degrees for the start of the race.

"This is not a normal gold medal in the Olympic Games marathon. This is a legend medal for me," Baldini said. "To start from the Marathon city and run the same course as the first Olympic Games, it was very exciting."

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